This summer I watched the fireworks standing in a gravel parking lot, a black check presenter shoved against the small of my back to keep track of my signed receipts. Scattered around the blocked-off street were the silhouettes of couples I’d waited on earlier in the evening. I was still on the clock, but my manager at the restaurant had shooed all of us out just after dusk so that we could be with our families when the national anthem started playing and the dark sky filled with kamuros, chrysanthemums and red-tipped crossettes.
My “family” tonight was my boyfriend, Jake, who had arrived in the Lowcountry earlier in the week and had spent the evening hanging out at the restaurant bar while I worked. In between taking drink orders, clearing plates and running credit cards I would poke my head around the bar to check on him. Now he stood in the parking lot with his arm around my waist and my head resting on his shoulder. We’d been apart for almost six months and I’d almost forgotten how good it felt to have him next to me.
The past spring semester hadn’t exactly been a semester for me. Instead of Bluebooking and procrastinating and midterming and commiserating, I left town. Requesting a leave of absence, I eschewed the study-abroad paradigm and boarded a plane for Berlin with vague plans to improve my knowledge of the German language, to read, to write and to travel.
It was an exhilarating, exhausting four months. A life changing experience, blah blah blah. But really.
Of course it wasn’t all Schmetterlinge and Blumen. Shortly after arriving in Germany, I discovered I had a complicated relationship with America and when talking with my peers from Switzerland or Spain or Bavaria, I would deride American attitudes and behaviors along with them. Every time a new friend would say, “You don’t seem very American,” I’d beam, but it felt like I’d received a gold star for betraying a friend I’d been fighting with.
I was also homesick. At least that was the word I used when I emailed my family or skyped with Jake, but the more I said it, the more it felt like a square peg that would never quite fit into the round empty throbbing above my stomach.
At the age of twenty-one, with my parents long divorced and a boyfriend that lives in another state, I have at least four discrete beds in four different bedrooms that occasionally feel home-like. I have a thousand disparate memories of safety and love — memories of home — that cluster themselves around Chicago, Colorado, New Haven, New York and New Jersey but when I desperately wanted a cathartic place to go to in my mind and linger for a while, I couldn’t find one.
When I returned from Europe in May, my dad and step-mom had finished relocating from Chicago to Charleston, where I would be spending the summer with them rent-free to work and save money. South Carolina was beautiful and new and exciting, but it wasn’t home any more than Berlin had been.
Until that Fourth of July. Standing in that gravel parking lot as Jake held me close, with patriotic country music booming out from giant amplifiers and red, white and blue sparks exploding across the sky, I felt a new awareness growing and everything started to click. It was a minor revelation, blah blah blah. But really.
For the first time since reentering the country, I was overcome with pride. Pride for the Americans sprawled across the parking lot in their lawn chairs with their Solo cups and their faces painted, belting out every word in “The Star Spangled Banner,” pride at the thought of millions of Americans in millions of towns and cities across the country sitting in their own lawn chairs watching their own fireworks. Pride for a country that still knows how to be proud of itself.
In that moment, I knew that I was safe, I knew that I was loved. I knew that I was home.